The nation's UPS men broke out the shorts 20 years ago
We also have Kenny Rogers getting his flowers, the Internet starting a war, time-traveling teenagers and the Pepsi-Coke rivalry
Welcome back to The Onion: 20 Years Later, where we review the print issue from 20 years ago, find out what’s still funny and examine the cultural impact. Today, we revisit April 3, 2002.
Today is 20 years since the all-time classic “Nation's UPS Men Break Out The Shorts,” one of those seminal signs that winter has ended and spring has sprung.
We also have a repeat story from April 2001, which I’ll mention later.
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What issue is this?
One of my favorite Onion one-liners is no longer online: “Southerner Either Looking For 'Pawn Shop' Or 'Porn Shop.'" I might like this joke only because I’m from Connecticut.
The other front-page headline that’s no longer online is “Lord's Prayer Ad-Libbed.”
This front page in 2002 had 2 headlines with a photo, and these are 2 different moods:
What was the top story, and other impressions?
“Nation's UPS Men Break Out The Shorts” is a beautiful example of The Onion spotting a repeating phenomenon — something that Americans haven’t thought much about but can instinctively understand. The brilliance is how The Onion makes this into some sort of grand tradition.
The shorts are actually fairly new — 1991 was the first year they were officially part of the uniform, according to this 2019 article! This is a relatively new “tradition” that The Onion — and 2001’s “Legally Blonde,” to be fair — retconned as a decades-long, American pie-style pastime:
"Ever since I was a kid, I haven't been able to stop wearing my down jacket until I see a UPS man in shorts," said Virginia Bourne, who, as office manager for a Buffalo law firm, signs for packages daily. "This year, I still haven't seen one, but something tells me today might be the day. [UPS delivery driver] Russ [Zorn] should be doing a drop off/pick up around 3 p.m., and I've got a good feeling."
Maybe people already had a thing for UPS drivers, but The Onion and “Legally Blonde” almost certainly boosted this trend. Look at this ridiculous 2019 New York Post article about a hot UPS driver making women swoon in NYC.
Is The Onion’s article funny? I think so. We’ve got lots of regional reactions, including a Washington, D.C., resident saying the UPS shorts are more a sign of spring than the cherry blossom bloom.
In The Onion’s universe, “Today” and Al Roker are covering the pants-to-shorts transition:
"I always smile extra big when I think about the UPS shorts," said Roker, who adds miniature pairs of brown shorts to his weather map each spring until every state has reported a sighting. "There's just something about those UPS men and their little shorts that brings out the spring feeling in me."
The Onion quotes a driver at the end:
"My shorts symbolize rebirth. They give people hope for new beginnings," said New York City UPS delivery man Greg Gullicksen. "Also, I got a lot more freedom of movement when I'm getting in and out of the truck."
There are no stories about U.S. politics or politicians this week, which is unusual even in this era of The Onion truly being more of a fake local newspaper.
We do have the international story “Countries Who Met Over Internet Go To War” that’s a fun goof. I guess in 2002 enough people still saw the internet as a fad. It’s important to remember the pre-Facebook internet here — we’re talking Yahoo chat rooms, Hotmail backup email accounts, and more. Check out this paragraph after Suriname and Estonia’s leaders bonded in a chat room about economic policy:
Said Ruutel, "We added each other to our MSN Messenger Friends lists and started forwarding each other funny internal memos. Arnold sent me an MP3 from his brother's kesco band, a traditional form of Surinamese music. Then I sent him a PayPal payment for just two kroon and said I was donating my budget surplus. We had a good laugh over that one."
Look at the size of that computer! Anyways, the 2 leaders actually meet, and all is well, but then trade disputes derail this budding friendship.
Ruutel replied with an angry six-page e-mail blasting Suriname's decision to form an alliance with Estonia's unfriendly neighbor. When Venetiaan responded by sending a Golden Girls "I'm Sorry" Lifetime Network e-card, Ruutel placed his country on full military alert. Though Venetiaan later insisted the card was "just a joke," the damage was done.
I enjoyed this. It’s a great look at early internet culture (or a slice of it) and so outlandish that there’s no reason to take this military conflict seriously.
Meanwhile, the only real-life news covered is the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal, which had been getting front-page play on the New York Times for weeks by this point as diocese after diocese was sued or revealed offenses.
“The Church Sex Scandal” has jokes about what the Bible say and about the liberal media, and a couple of the jokes feel prescient, if maybe not laugh-out-loud funny. For example:
"Now that it's out in the open, the healing can begin. Except for the kids."
Danielle Krug • Speech Therapist
Young people doing things
Lots of stories this week about high-school and college students. We start with “New Roommate Has Elaborate Theory About How Kenny Rogers Is A Genius.”
Rogers is still famous — he only died 2 years ago, after all — but 20-30 years ago, he was even bigger in pop culture. Late-night shows like Mad TV regularly parodied him, for example. I don’t think “Saturday Night Live” is parodying too many country singers these days.
What’s funny is that there’s probably a real argument that Kenny Rogers is a musical genius — the guy had over 100 charting singles. But the college roommates of Kurt Schaier treat his claims like he’s saying Milli Vanilli and Limp Bizkit were geniuses:
"The first 48 hours were fine, but then on day three, completely out of nowhere, the Kenny Rogers floodgates opened wide," Haltigan said. "That's when Kurt told me that Kenny Rogers straddles—actually, the exact phrase was effortlessly straddles—the line between contemporary pop and classic country, yet everyone unfairly dismisses him as a lightweight because he has strong appeal with the easy-listening crowd."
The Onion asks a psychologist to diagnosis the situation:
"Mike and Andrea do not yet know enough about Kurt to determine whether his statements are driven by a genuine love of Kenny Rogers, a desire for acceptance, a desire to annoy, or some combination of the three," Paul said.
Speaking of Limp Bizkit, “Sullen Time-Traveling Teen Reports 23rd Century Sucks” features a teen who seems to be dressed somewhat like Fred Durst, especially that backwards red cap.
Steve Geremek is the son of a theoretical physicist who, as often happens, accidentally interferes with his father’s work and gets zapped to the year 2202. He’s also not forthcoming about what the future is like, except that it was mostly boring. The most detail he gives is about pizza … sort of:
"They still had pizza, which was cool," Geremek said. "But kids were into splicing their DNA with beetles, so they get, like, these temporary mandibles shooting out of their foreheads. It sounds like it would be pretty cool, but it actually looked kinda gay."
Steve’s father is mad because 20 years of work was ruined — he grounds Steve and is called a Nazi in response — while scientists are baffled by Steve’s curt, reticent descriptions of the future.
This is a good satire of surly teens, but it’s the setting of a time travel that makes this unusual and somewhat memorable.
Other young people stories this week include:
“Nation's Deans Meet To Discuss Problem Of College Girls Going Wild”: I wish this story was longer and/or funnier. It’s just a couple quotes from college deans being shocked. 2002 was about the peak of the “Girls Gone Wild” franchise, although the New York Times felt compelled to cover GGW as late as 2004.
“Acid Trip Better Planned Than Vacation”: This 22-year-old has a job, but it’s that very 1990s/early 2000s job of video-store clerk.
Area People doing Area Things
“Loft Discussed At Loft Party”: A fantastic, simple joke.
“Parrot's Previous Owner Obviously Watched A Lot Of The Price Is Right”: This parrot is named Crackers, which feels like a good generic parrot name. “Childs also swore that he once heard Crackers sing the yodeling music from the mountain-climber game.”
“Pepsi CEO's Wife Buys Coke When She's Mad At Him”: This is the real CEO of Pepsico at the time, although his real-life wife is Gail, not Mary. That aside, this is wonderful pettiness.
Were the infographics good?
OK … this is weird. “The Organ-Donor Crisis” ran on April 25, 2001! I wrote about it then! I didn’t realize this till I was typing these lines, but something felt familiar about the jokes.
I wonder what item fell through near The Onion’s print deadline and caused them to select this reprint. It’s a decent selection of jokes but not so amazing that the staff couldn’t, under normal circumstances, come up with something original.
“How Are We Getting Drugs On The Plane” is our other infographic. It feels like a pre-9/11 set of jokes, but it’s good enough as a front-page item. The Onion always ran a small infographic with 4-6 jokes, and it’s not easy to find jokes for such a small space. "Flour For Making A Cake For Grandma” made me laugh because it feels like nothing would be more suspicious to TSA.
What columnists ran?
“You Used Me For Sex, Friendship, And Good Conversation” is such a good headline for this column that treats a regular six-week relationship and breakup as if everything about it was a scam.
Shared interests, good conversations — all lies. “I'm sure being a generous lover was also part of your elaborate ruse,” writes our columnist.
There are a lot of tropes about the early weeks of dating, but there’s also this fantastic simile:
Couldn't I see that all those jokes you told were just a thinly veiled attempt to get me to have a good time with you? Apparently not, because I fell for it like a sparrow weighted with sandbags.
To be fair, many people would benefit from a full breakup and not pretending to be friends:
Now you want to be "just friends"? Whatever it takes to help you sleep. Your carefully chosen words aren't fooling me. The time for that is over. I refuse to fall victim to your sincerity ever again.
Our other columnist is the irrepressible Jean Teasdale, back with “Stand-Up And Be Counted.” Jean starts off by naming basically every dream she’s had since she was a kid, and how they’ve all failed to materialize (including the 3 children she wanted). It would be very sad to read this if it weren’t for Jean being enthusiastic and fictional.
She asks her boss at Fashion Bug, Roz, about her dreams. Roz is reticient, and it takes co-worker Ellen to reveal that Roz wants to be a stand-up comic. One thing leads to another, and Jean decides to write jokes for Roz to perform at open-mic night at the local spot, Laughingstock's.
If you’re a Jean Teasdale fan, you might be thinking, oh no. Jean’s not unfunny, but her sense of humor doesn’t connect with a lot of, well, adults. Turns out, Roz uses her old jokes about ex-boyfriends and ignores Jean’s material. Here’s some of what Jean wrote:
Why wasn't she using my material? Where was the line about how cats look at your finger instead of the thing you're pointing to? How "one size fits all" is the great lie of our time? What the deal was with this Go-Gurt? And my topper: "That Osama bin Laden should take a chocolate pill!" Why, Roz didn't even refer to chocolate once!
These aren’t terrible topics, actually? At least for a talented comic. Poor Jean. She remains undeterred, thinks Roz is just insecure, and decides to start mailing jokes to Joy Behar and other comics.
I wonder whether we’ll get an update.
What was the best horoscope?
This horoscope feels like a look at Stephanie Meyer’s LiveJournal from 2002 or something:
Cancer | June 21 to July 22
You are growing increasingly annoyed with popular culture's continued misinterpretation and trivialization of the vampire's point of view.
What holds up best?
“Nation's UPS Men Break Out The Shorts” is a legendary article — funny in the moment and still funny in different eras. Few comics, writers or humorists are as sharp as The Onion in finding minutiae like this and making it into an art form.
That said, “Countries Who Met Over Internet Go To War” is a great read not just for the writing but also for all the Web 1.0 references.
What holds up worst?
“Nation's Deans Meet To Discuss Problem Of College Girls Going Wild” and “Rapist Gets New Start At Technical College” both suffer from not really being jokes.
What would be done differently today?
Amazing to have no mention of a real-life American politician in this issue. I’m not really sad about it, but today’s Onion could never get away with this.
I feel like “Acid Trip Better Planned Than Vacation” could exist today but would involve a different drug.
Always glad to have you here. I know it’s a long read! And I’m at weddings this week and next, so I’m also just glad to have these publish at all.